The Online Harms white paper: a headache we have to embrace

10 Apr 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
The Online Harms white paper: a headache we have to embrace

The Government's white paper is hardly going to solve every problem with the internet, writes Raymond Snoddy - but it's a start and the effort is worth making

It is a little awkward to spend years railing against the sins of the multi-billion social media companies and then when the Government tries to do something about it the cries go up that the UK would end up in the same camp as Putin and Kim Jong-un.

Err no, this is not an anti-journalist charter that Putin and Kim would approve of, or that Jeremy Corbyn could abuse if he ever became Prime Minister.

The main reason is that this is not a charter for censorship at all but a white paper on Online Harms, which sets out a wide range of ideas for discussion and consultation over the next three months.

The Daily Mail
is perturbed that “free speech is in peril” and that when legislation is rushed through to deal with an urgent social problem there are often untended consequences - the Dangerous Dogs Act comes to the paper’s mind as it frequently does.

In fact it is not the Government’s precipitous rush that is the problem but the fact that virtually nothing has been done to correct manifest harm and abuse when is has been clear for years that the social media tycoons promise reform and action and then do very little – or at least not nearly enough.

If there is a fault it may be that it is not comprehensive enough. Where are the measures to tackle economic “harms” or do something about Putin’s little helpers using social media to undermine democratic votes in democratic societies. It is true that the Government may have moved up a gear or two because of two appalling incidents, one more clearly implicating the social media than the other.

In any society, anywhere in the world, no-one should be able to broadcast live on Facebook the murder of 50 men, women and children and have it endlessly copied and retransmitted.

There can be no freedom of speech protection for such an atrocity.

The other of course is the suicide of Molly Russell whose father, Ian, has accused Facebook-owned Instagram of contributing to the death of his daughter.

Even if it was not as clear-cut as that, self-harm and suicide-related material was on that site and actively served to vulnerable children.

Difficult to argue a freedom of expression justification there either, and it was made even worse by the fact that mainstream advertisers were apparently happy to have their brands associated with such material – or at the very least not care enough to do anything about the mechanism that enabled it to happen.

There is a line that is easy to draw for material that should be suppressed and that is the portrayal, incitement and encouragement of violence and that includes self-harm.

On the other side the freedom to be rude, offensive, derogatory, disparaging, obnoxious and maybe even hateful should usually be defended.

All of the above can be dealt with by ridicule, humour and lampoon and the tireless presentation of the facts.

It should rarely be the business of the law and our over-stretched police to chase mirages of poorly defined or definable hate speech extended to the internet.

There are a few very important principles in the Online Harms white paper. It is quite explicit that the social media groups are publishers who must be held responsible for what they transmit even though they do not generate it themselves.

The proposed legislation would impose a duty of care on the social media to protect young children from sexual exploitation and other such forms of abuse and require age limits for adult material to be policed.

An independent regulator, paid for by a levy on the social media groups - and surely it is one that is not Ofcom - would be able to impose meaningful fines not just on companies but on named executives who repeatedly breach regulations.

There are other potential issues which are difficult to define and should receive detailed scrutiny when a bill comes to Parliament - potential offences such cyber-bullying, coercive behaviour and disinformation.

Disinformation, and its close cousin fake news, is very hard to define in any precise way and very easy for politicians to co-opt and use to describe anything they disagree with.

Hugo Rifkind in The Times helpfully highlights a whole other area beyond the reach of the white paper, the “epidemic of fake health news” spreading on social media - with inaccurate information about vaccinations leading to hundreds of deaths.

More than 20,000 people in the Philippines, which has the highest social media use in the world, have contracted measles this year. In 2017 it was a tenth as many. At the same time there was a drop in confidence in those strongly agreeing vaccination is safe from 82 per cent in 2015 to only 21 per cent last year.

Irrational, anti-scientific campaigns fester online, particularly Facebook. What we are running into is what Rifkind calls “the global collapse of truth.”

Shop around and choose your own preferred version of reality.

The Online Harms white paper is hardly going to solve all the problems of the online world but it is a start and the effort is worth making to force the online giants take responsible for what they are doing as well as what they are obviously not doing.

It obviously would have been better if the current 28 countries of the European Union had managed to take a co-ordinated approach – but there are a few distractions in Brussels at the moment.

It may take a further bill but more attention has to be focused on the economic depredations of the social media in hoovering up online advertising, accusations of acquiescing in illegal involvement in elections in democratic countries and their marked reluctance to pay more tax than they have to.

But all of that goes beyond any reasonable or useful definition of "online harms" - at least for now. What should be put to rest - outside the minds of conspiracy theorists - is that all of this is a plot against the press and freedom of expression.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright insisted the white paper was not about what journalists write or say but about self-generated content.

“So this in not about journalism, this is about an unregulated space that we need to control better, to keep people safer,” lawyer Wright argued.

We can hold the Government to account on that – and leave Jeremy Corbyn to the electorate.

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NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 10 Apr 2019
“It's a solid start, and laudable intent, but it is only a start and intent; as ever the devil is in the details.
And the truth is that it does have the potential to capture a lot of media as unintended bycatch. The Mail and Mirror (among others) republished excerpts of the Christchurch killer's livestream, for example, and would - and should - be hit with the same rules as any other site publishing them. And the Telegraph’s claims of a 'deep state intent on preventing no-deal Brexit' would fall foul of any objective definition of ‘fake news’.
The challenge is that various objectives are being used interchangeably here: a desire to prevent the spread of 'fake news', a renewed focus on the availability of objectionable material online, an intense dislike of the online giants, and a desire to protect offline publishers. They are distinct, and trying to craft a single umbrella of legislation to fit them all is an enormous challenge.
For example, determined people were able to find out how to commit suicide before Facebook and the internet, so what’s the appropriate balance of restricting access to content vs punishing Facebook? Likewise, when it comes to terrorist content online, Facebook is the obvious target, but it’s not the only means of broadcast – and more established publishers have shown they will use it to generate traffic – so how should it be defined and policed?
So it's a hugely important step, and will hopefully lead to vital legislation. But to get there requires navigating a complex minefield, will presumably take several years, and is guaranteed to anger at least one portion of the industry…”


17 Jun 2019 

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